If the Cleveland Browns are looking for a splash move on the defensive side of the ball in free agency, Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III would fit the mold.
Bates was a second-round pick of the Bengals in 2018 and has established himself as one of the better safeties in the league. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2020 and is coming off a season where he had 71 tackles and four interceptions. He graded out at 76.8 overall on Pro Football Focus last season and had an elite run support grade — something the Browns could desperately utilize.
The Browns were pitched as the best fit for Bates by ESPN, who ranked him as the No. 11 free agent available.
“The Browns will need to do some work with the cap, but Bates upgrades a Cleveland defense that needs better play and more ball production at the safety position. Bates has the post and split-field range to cover some grass, along with the scheme versatility to play from depth or spin down in coverage,” ESPN’s Matt Bowen wrote. “He logged four interceptions and eight pass breakups last year in Cincinnati, and he has posted 14 career interceptions over five pro seasons. Bates, who played on the franchise tag last season, is in line for a long-term deal.”
Bates Aquistion Would Mean Release of John Johnson
If the Browns were to pursue Bates, it would more than likely mean the team is ready to move on from John Johnson III, who was in the first wave of signings by general manager Andrew Berry.
He notched elite grades on Pro Football Focus while with LA but has been average with Cleveland, coming off a year where he graded out at 62.8. Johnson has notched 162 tackles and four interceptions over the last two seasons.
Johnson is entering the final year of a three-year deal he signed with the Browns prior to the 2021 season. Without a restructure, Johnson will make $8.75 million next season and count $13.5 million against the cap.
But simply, Johnson hasn’t been the difference-maker on the defensive side of the ball the Browns expected when they inked him to the deal. Part of that might have been the scheme under Joe Woods but the Browns could save $12.6 million by moving on from him.
Jim Schwartz Wants to Build ‘Attack’ Defense
The decision on Johnson or Bates will come down to new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who has a vision of what he wants to build in Cleveland.
“There are certain skill sets we look for and a little bit of play style that maybe other people might not appreciate as much,” Schwartz told the Browns’ official site. “They might use the person a little bit differently, and something that’s sort of involved in that scheme is that we can get guys going pretty quickly.
“I think that if we all work together, we can find some productive players regardless of (if they’re in) the first round, or as a high-priced free agent or anything else.”
Even if no other changes happen, the Browns have some significant pieces to build around on the defensive side of the ball, including pass-rusher Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward.